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If Sporting KC Lose, they’ll Regret the First Leg Versus RSL

Exhaustion and yellow cards, oh my!

MLS: Western Conference Semifinal-Sporting Kansas City at Real Salt Lake Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

We beat the stats to death when we previewed the first leg in the Western Conference Semifinals between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake. They aren’t very positive for Sporting KC.

One stat we didn’t highlight, because it hadn’t happened yet, was possession in the first leg. RSL outpossessed SKC 66.6% to 33.4%. That’s the single worst outing possession-wise that Sporting KC have had in years. Years. Over three years to be more precise.

At the end of the 2018 regular season they were second in the league in possession per game (57.1%). For reference, Salt Lake are quite good at possession and were third in the league with 55% in 2018.

There is some question of, ‘did RSL dictate the game?’ There is no doubt in my mind it was a strategic choice from Peter Vermes and Sporting KC. I’ve heard it argued (in the comments on this very site) it was to bypass the midfield and avoid all the hacking and chopping RSL do to break up a game. That could be true and it could be argued that it “worked.” Sporting got their away goal and escaped with a draw.

However, I’d argue that if Sporting falter at home, they’ll look back at that first leg as a missed opportunity.

Leg 1: The Fouls that Weren’t

Going into the first leg of the RSL/SKC series, Albert Rusnak, Aaron Herrera, Jefferson Savarino, Corey Baird and Sunny were all on yellow cards. In the MLS Cup Playoffs it takes just two yellow cards to earn a suspension. That means Salt Lake picked up five yellow cards in their knockout round matchup with Los Angeles Football Club.

In the match with Kansas City they would pick up just two more yellow cards. One for Rusnak, who is now suspended and one for Kyle Beckerman, who somehow avoided picking up a card in the opening round. Beckerman had four fouls against LAFC, that’s pretty much the definition of persistent infringement.

RSL fouls against LAFC.

When RSL played LAFC, they picked up 20 fouls. In the game against Sporting KC, they only had 10 fouls.

RSL fouls against SKC (leg one).

As much as I don’t want to see the midfielders and forwards getting chopped and hacked by a physical Real Salt Lake team, there is no doubt in my mind additional yellow cards would have been handed out and it’s extremely likely that more RSL players would be suspended for the upcoming second leg.

It’s Not Only About the Fouls

Sure, it would be nice to have additional Salt Lake players suspended going into the second leg (and Rusnak is a good one for them to be without), but it’s not all about fouls. The other missed opportunity was Real Salt Lake coming in on short rest.

They had just played 90+ minutes on the road against LAFC on Thursday and had a very quick turnaround. The game this past Sunday was also in altitude. I’ll concede the RSL players should be used to the thin air, but it takes a toll on both teams to press hard in those conditions.

Add to all that the fact that Sporting KC’s usual style wears teams down too. They run so hard and possess the ball so well, that teams get worn down chasing the game.

So between very short rest, the altitude and Sporting KC’s style, it seems that Sporting would have had an advantage, especially late in the game, even though it was on the road. Which kind of brings us back to fouls (maybe it is all about fouls and cards). When a team is tired they tend to take sloppy touches, be late to challenges, and pick up fouls and additional cards.

So while it’s true RSL have had Sporting’s number in recent years, this really feels like an opportunity missed. Overall, Sporting still got out of Sandy, Utah with a draw. And a draw in which they scored an away goal. So by no means is it a bad situation. It just feels like an opportunity lost. If Sporting KC win (or even do a boring 0-0 draw), they will advance and all of this will be forgotten.